'Harlots' Season 2 will be all about falling from grace, says Holli Dempsey

Created by Alison Newman and Moira Buffini, Harlots takes its viewers back to 18th century England and sheds light on the life of women working in brothels

                            'Harlots' Season 2 will be all about falling from grace, says Holli Dempsey
Holli Dempsey (Source : Getty Images)

Created by Alison Newman and Moira Buffini, Harlots takes its viewers back to 18th century England and sheds light on the life of women working in brothels. Even though the city is booming, one in every five women makes a living in sex. The show portrays how the lives of women were decided by the society. One could either choose to be rich by marrying into a wealthy family or they could enter into prostitution. But this is not the end of their hardships. 

Harlots is available July 11 only on Hulu. The show revolves around Margaret Wells and Lydia Quigley who are the madams of the two brothels in the town. With Lydia having a brothel which reflects a posh lifestyle, Margaret hints at a rather small but close-knit connection with the girls who work at her house. Among the girls, Emily Lacey (played by Holli Dempsey) reflects the life of a girl who has been through it all.

Juggling between the house of Margaret and Lydia, we see the fall and rise of Emily. In an interview with Meaww, Holli talks about her role as Emily and what one can expect from the upcoming season of the show. 

What made you decide to take the role of Emily?

I love the pitch that they used for this role. So, they called it the Sopranos from a whore's point of view and to me it was just the perfect pitch because what the Sopranos did for a serial killer, for a gangster, for a murderer, you know, they really humanized him. Prostitutes, they are often underwritten and they are barely ever featured in programs. So to have a whole show based around the brothels in London and it is the oldest job in the book and it is not one that has gone away ever.

So, I thought it was really important and it kinda made me wonder why it had not been made before as it is one of the oldest story for women and it is still a very successful profession. And there is a reason for that because the demand is there or the supply would never be there. Then, I read the character of Emily and straight away I just fell in love with her and wanted to play her. So I am really glad I get to.

Could you walk us through the audition process? 

I remember my audition was at 10 am. So, I think I was the first one in the room and it is funny when you are rehearsing for an audition like that because, four days before the show, I made sure that I knew all the lines and it was the first scene in which we are reading the list around the dinner table in episode one.

So, it is very quick and punchy and lots of great lines and the girls are arguing in the scene. So, I was reading the lines with my brother the night before and it was completely normal for me but he was appalled because he didn’t know what the project is and he is there wondering 'What is this?' and I have to say, ‘I hope your quince splits’ and he is like ‘Oh my god, I don’t think you should go for this'. I was like, ‘No, no. Honestly, I think it is great.’

Then when I got into the audition, I remember sitting there and thinking something is not quite right. I was like, ‘I don’t feel like Emily right now’. And I literally opened my legs just a bit more and realized that sort of honest stance is a lot stronger.

And that is exactly what Emily is because their body is kind of their instrument, their tool. They are not how we imagine them to be. They can’t act like ladies, they are working. They get down and dirty like real women. So, as soon as I sat a bit differently, I was able to find that character so that was quite exciting. I think I did a good audition and that’s why they offered me the part. I am obviously more like Emily than I care to admit.

If you had to describe the character of Emily, how would you? 

I think Emily is a brat. She is abrasive. She says what she means. She is a real fighter so I think she is a real survivor. She won’t go down easily. She has already struggled for 18 years, her whole life, and she has struggled to stay alive against all the odds in Georgian London. There was no police force, there was no sanitation, industry, so, the chances of dying were so high. So, anyone who is alive at this stage is a real fighter and I love Emily even though she may not be that likeable if you knew her in real life because she comes across as selfish. But she is fun to play, that’s for sure.

Do you find any similarities or differences between Emily and yourself?

I shouldn’t admit to any similarities to Emily really. But I definitely relate to her. Her kind of scrappy nature and the way she has sort of worked her way up from nothing. I mean, I was obviously not born in the streets of London but I was born in East London and, you know, it is difficult. A lot of people from my area do not become successful and I kind relate to that.


The hard work and the struggle that you got to do when you have to get where you want to, but I sort of draw the line when it comes to murder and theft and all that. But it is a different world that I was born into from Emily. She had to survive, so, I respect her for that. She is fun as well and she always says what she thinks and, in that way, I want to be a bit more like Emily. So, I often say what I think but she won’t bat an eyelid and will just open her mouth. Sometimes I feel that I want to be a bit more like Emily.

Throughout the first season, we see the character of Emily evolving. Were there any challenges you faced while portraying her character?

I think that is a dream for an actor, to take on a character that does all of these things. She plays with her sexuality, she also plays with her strength. You will see her weak and vulnerable and we have also seen her fighting and on top. So, I think, in a way, it is my dream character. That’s why I wanted to play Emily because I knew she would go through all of these emotions. She is not a bad person. She is hurt and she is vulnerable and I am sure it was difficult.

You know, I am not actually acting when Lidia Quigley (Lesley Manville) is shouting at me because she is genuinely terrifying so it is easy to act frightened when you are working with Lesley. She is such a good actress. At the same time, I have got love and warmth from Douggie McMeekin, he plays Charles Quigley. With them around, it becomes easy to find yourself in those situations and just try and think ‘What would Emily do?’ honestly and truthfully.

What according to you might be the reason for Emily to head back to Lydia despite of how she has treated her in the past? 

I think her only job is to survive. She has literally in this sense gone into the belly of the beast in order to survive. She has created this lie that it hopefully going to save her life and, again, when she has got her back against the wall, it is like fight or flight. So, she has made this lie in order to save herself and Charles. Hopefully. She needs to protect herself.

We see a complicated relationship between Charles and Emily during the season. Do you hope for her to develop actual feelings for Charles?

I think, initially, that seems like the obvious thing to do. So I think I want to avoid the obvious storyline of she is going to be saved by falling in love with this man. I don’t think that is the sort of show we are making because it is also not realistic of these women. Most of them died and were buried in masquerade in London and there is no respect for their lives at all. So, in a way, that would kind of be an obvious and an easy thing to do for a scriptwriter but I don’t think we shouldn’t do it.

Just thinking it would not be your natural, normal, traditional love scene in a show. We are not Ross and Rachel from friends. I think they may use each other in the future for survival. I think, Emily does have love for Charles too because he has been the only person who has been there for her. He saved her life before. So, I think it would be wrong to say that she doesn’t love him. But then again, she also loves herself first and she loves surviving more.

If there were a scenario in which Emily had been the madam of the brothel like Lydia or Margaret, how different do you think things would have been?

I think Emily has learned so much from the two women who have kinda raised her in good and bad ways. Both Margaret Wells and Lydia Quigley. I think she has learned so much from them that, in a way, she as a madam is painted by both of them. So, she has learnt how to be strong and work her way up and she has also seen what Lydia has got and wants it. So, I think Emily has got a little bit more heart than Lydia Quigley which is easy because she is quite evil and Margaret Wells again has worked her way up and does what she needs to do.

Maybe, not the best for everyone but I think Emily will be quite similar to both of them in a way. I think she will give a chance to people because she has got heart in there but also do what is best for her and the business. So, I think she is similar to both of them. She was raised by both of them, the good and the bad. I wonder if she would become completely like Lydia who is more successful but most selfish person who has risen up and has got a nicest house. So, I think Emily would want that even if it comes at a price.

Could you walk us through a typical day on the sets of 'Harlots'?

We film in Watford and it is about an hour drive from my house. It is a beautiful mansion house and we are really lucky because we get to spend a whole six months filming there. So, I am always the first one to be there and it is quite insulting because I am always there an hour or two before people because my hair and the costume in this season is a real masterpiece thanks to Lydia, my makeup artist, who always creates a piece of art on my head every morning. So, I go earlier and get my rollers set in and then I get some breakfast brought to me which sounds nice but then usually your breakfast gets all your hairspray but that is fine. We just get on with it and I then go out and finish my breakfast and change into costume and you might want to finish your breakfast before that because your corset is so tight, depending on who ties it.

You don’t want to anger the people who are dressing you because they have to tighten the corset and, if they don’t like you, you are in trouble. So, we put all the corsets and the skirts and everything on and then I go back to make up and then they take my hair down and finish everything. So, it is about four hours before you start anything. There is a lot of running around and it is very difficult to get to the toilet because there are about four skirts for everyone. If anyone out there designs toilets, then they just need to make them wider for us, please so we can fit in there. It is a good business idea. I think everyone on the set is wonderful, the cast and crew is just a dream and a big one. Sometimes, I don’t even get to work with or see other characters for whole six months but it is wonderful to be part of such a cast and crew. Everyone has got the part that they should have and that’s what makes the show special.

Which co-star did you get along with most on the show?

I think it’s been a dream having Dougie as my partner in crime because, especially in the first season, we had to do a lot of intimate stuff. So, I am glad we had such a great and easy going relationship with each other so we can go into those funny sexy scenes with ease. Some of my favorite shots have been so much fun but it is only fun when you have someone like Dougie to work with who does not make it awkward and Pippa Bennett-Warner, that was such a revelation from last season. You know, we got really close and she is just a great girl and it is amazing because the writers start writing for us instead of the characters. So, they know who I am, who Dougie is and who Pippa is, so they start writing for the character which is really exciting and it changes a lot.

What do you think people can expect from the second season of Harlots?

I think everyone in the show has a fall from grace in season 2 which is very exciting because you see a lot of strong and powerful characters in season one and you think they can never be toppled from their throne but it happens. In Georgian London, I think things can just happen and turn around quickly and there is a lot of lawlessness because there is no police. People do get away with what they want to get away with and, if you think you saw people changing in season 1, then just wait for season 2 because you will not believe some of the states these people are in. People try to rise up in the rank and people fall down the ladder. It really was a snakes and ladder game at that point in Georgian London because you had to keep climbing otherwise you would slip right back down. So, yeah, survival is on everyone’s mind and most stories from these women are more detailed.

What does the second season have in store for Emily?

Emily, as you saw in season 1, rose through the ranks where she thought she is too good for Margaret Wells house. She was a prisoner to Lydia Quigley. So, she is a lot more frightened now as she has stared at death right in the face. So, season 2 you see her get little a bit more success and instead of using money she is more confident with a personality which says, ‘Look at me. I am the queen of the board’. But we don’t know how long she will be like that. Emily is always known for climbing the ladder but slipping right back down. So, we will see what is in store for her and how far she will go.